Ben Franklin famously wrote that only death and taxes are certain. In the grand scheme of biological history, the latter is a recent development. Most organisms—shrubs, cats, billionaires—have managed to happily avoid them. Death, on the other hand, greeted our earliest single-celled ancestor and will whisk away the very last cockroach. This stubborn fact is the premise of a gleefully ribald new musical, based on Tim Burton’s immortal sophomore film.
Regular theatergoers have good reason to be dubious of screen-to-stage translations. For every supernova (Hairspray, The Producers, Billy Elliot), there’s a corresponding black hole (Carrie, Big, Footloose). Elaborate adaptations are, for the most part, vehicles for nostalgia. They’re often little more than proven commodities, known brands. In most cases, the original movie outshines its theatrical byproduct. Why would anyone pay triple digits for a live experience when a better one awaits, with cheap microwave popcorn, in the living room?
Perhaps because the best translations aren’t mere rehashes draped in spectacle. Sometimes a show deepens its source material, something akin to a philosophical reboot, one that also pays homage to a beloved film. The Broadway-bound production currently haunting the National Theatre comes tantalizingly close to such transcendence. It’s called Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice? Beetlejuice.
Having seen the show twice, I still conjure its titular demon, despite many reservations. I first experienced this highly polished extravaganza during previews. Full disclosure: I gaped at its showstoppers, laughed a lot, and cried here and there. I didn’t recognize a difference two weeks later on opening night, beside my less-enthusiastic reaction, which was more intellectual than emotional: Aha became huh.
The problem here isn’t breadth, but depth. On the surface, Beetlejuice is exactly what you think you want. Director Alex Timbers delivers the phantasmagorical goods. With help from David Korins’ stunning sets, Ken Posner’s metamorphic lighting, and Michael Curry and Jeremy Chernick’s extraordinary puppetry and special effects, Beetlejuice is brought to vivid life. Danny Elfman’s classic score is evoked, with more than just a wink, as we find our seats before the curtain opens and during intermission.
The story matches its setting: slightly askew but recognizable. Beetlejuice (Alex Brightman, a foul-mouthed, pansexual Puck) graduates from Michael Keaton’s supporting role to a Cabaret-like emcee who’s omnipresent, both an observer and a participant. The show begins with a funeral ripped from the pages of Edward Gorey, with a glib opening number called “The Whole Being Dead Thing.” Love him or hate him, Beetlejuice is the embodiment of a gravelly, Apatovian bro. Sex dominates his brain, and his mind is pure id.
Lydia (the spectacular Sophia Anne Caruso) is still deep in mourning for her late mother (which she translates to song in the Avril Lavigne-inspired “Dead Mom”). She eventually befriends a pair of square ghosts (Kerry Butler and Rob McClure) stuck in afterlife stasis. Her patrician father (Adam Dannheisser) and his New Age companion (Leslie Kritzer, fabulous here) invade and remake a quaint dwelling outside of New York City formerly owned by the ghosts, who are not too thrilled to find themselves replaced in their own home. Like Burton’s film, Beetlejuice becomes a tale of exorcism, of the living from a place of the dead.
If Eddie Perfect (music and lyrics) and Scott Brown and Anthony King (who co-wrote the book) studied a holy text, it wasn’t the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, but The Book of Mormon. Beetlejuice is proudly filthy, and at times genuinely heartbreaking. But the only songs that are hummable have existed for decades. The proof is in the bathroom. During intermission, the guys around me were whistling Harry Belafonte. And yet, once it moves to Broadway, this version of Beetlejuice will live to see another day: oh, no doubt.
Beetlejuice runs at the National Theatre through Nov. 18, tickets $54-$114. Runtime about 2 hours and 40 minutes with intermission.
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